William Stringfellow, Instead of Death – Part III

Chapter Three of Instead of Death is titled ‘Sex and the Search for Self’. Here, the issue is not pleasure or lust but concerns personal identity under the Word of God. Stringfellow’s thesis here is that ‘the search for self is the most characteristic aspect of sex’ (p. 37). And this too is the ‘very theme of the gospel’ (p. 38). Throughout this chapter, he makes the ‘radical’ assumption that people both inside and outside the church are doing it, and nearly doing it, and that sexuality is an element of every human transaction or communication, even when nothing happens to ‘dramatize the fact’. And so he laments the ‘conventional denunciations’ of sex heard so often in the church – of sex as sin and as some something ‘foul or dirty or animalistic’. ‘Nothing that has ever been done in a bedroom, in the back seat of a car, or, for that matter, in a brothel is beyond the scope of the gospel and, therefore, beyond the Church’s care for the world. The fantasies, fears, and fairy tales associated with sex must be dispelled so that, within the Church, sex is admitted, discussed, and understood with intelligence, maturity, compassion, and, most of all, a reverence for the ministry of Christ in restoring human life to human beings’ (pp. 38–9). Stringfellow returns to play this melody later on, this time in regard to pornography and its associated secrecy:

‘If sex in all of its meanings, practices, and rituals is not in the open – frankly recognized, intelligently considered, and compassionately dealt with – then what is to be expected except that sex will be the subject of gossip, rumor, escapism, fantasy, and the lure of that which is forbidden? Recourse to pornography among adolescents is, as far as I can discern, far less the consequence of racketeer activities or abnormal adolescent preoccupation with sex than of the fear of candor about sex among adults, including parents and pastors’. (p. 50)

Stringfellow rightly names the heresy called ‘Christian marriage’ as a ‘vain, romantic and unbiblical’ concept, as pure fiction, and as ridiculous as the notion of a ‘Christian nation’ or a ‘Christian lawyer’ or a ‘Christian athlete’, or, we might add, ‘Christian music’. What might a ‘Christian’ crotchet look and sound like?! These are, like marriage, realities of the fallen life of the world, inherently secular, and subject to the power of death. ‘They are’, Stringfellow writes, ‘aspects of the present, transient, perishing existence of the world’ (p. 41). That clergy are licensed by the State to perform the functions of a civil magistrate only adds to the confusion about ‘Christian marriage’, and, Stringfellow claims, ‘greatly compromises the discretion of the clergy as to whom they shall marry’ (p. 42).

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